The Facebook Model of Innovation

The speedy proliferation of Snapchat Story clones across Facebook’s apps is, I think, one of the most fascinating recent case studies of a feature going from invention to ubiquity. Facebook has four of the most popular apps on any ecosystem — as of writing, Instagram, Messenger, and the Facebook app are all in the top ten most popular free apps in the iOS App Store, with Whatsapp just missing the list at number eleven. And, as of today, all four of those apps have a variation of the Snapchat “Stories” feature shoehorned onto their main screens.

It’s news to nobody that Facebook is unapologetically cloning Snapchat. What is noteworthy is how Facebook has updated Microsoft’s infamous “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy for the speed at which Silicon Valley now operates.

Consider this: what top-billing user-facing features has Facebook added so far this year to the four aforementioned apps? Aside from Stories, I can think of three: live location sharing and reactions in Messenger, and live broadcasting in Instagram. The Messenger features are lifted directly from iMessage, Slack, and a handful of other messaging apps, while live video in Instagram is pretty much a rebadged version of Facebook Live — itself largely a copy of Periscope, Meerkat, and Ustream.

Facebook’s copying is unsurprising, just as the prior art they’re using as a reference is unsurprising — the most distinctive features in the copied apps are arguably natural extensions of each app’s environment. But, with one-sixth of the world’s population using their services and their complete platform independence, Facebook’s ability to annihilate anything they deem competitive is unprecedented in its scope.

This power has provided Facebook with the luxury of allowing other companies to take the risk of trying new things, and then either embracing the company via an acquisition, or extinguishing them by duplicating their most unique component. It isn’t so much that Facebook can’t come up with these features on their own, but rather that they’ve elected to let other companies build entire business models around singular features that can be duplicated in Facebook’s far more established ecosystems.

That strategy allows Facebook to experiment with greater extensions to their business model: new advertising and tracking methods, drones that provide internet access to developing nations, and the like. Adding users and presence around the world allows the strategy to dig in even deeper, feeding itself.

As Facebook’s strategy becomes even more pervasive, I wonder what kinds of tech companies are safe. My gut sense is that, over time, Facebook’s strategy allows them to build a diversified portfolio of companies, should they choose to do so, with monopolizing power over internet services. But that only works for Facebook so long as users also dig themselves deeper into their ecosystems. The failure of their email and phone efforts indicates to me that users aren’t ready to dig deeper without a meaningful extension of the existing products that Facebook intended to replace with each. My hope is that users continue to limit Facebook’s reach, and not the other way around.